What is the lure of the awful female lead role to an excellent actress? Why, that it is a female lead role.
If you dig back far enough into my past you will find a time when I wanted to be an actor. Growing up in the country well away from any theatres or even youth groups, going to the local school where there were no drama classes or extension programmes, all I had was an instinct for what acting was about. My instinct was that imagining yourself into another person felt satisfying, expansive, even thrilling. What I learned quickly, once I got to uni and there was a drama society to join, was that you can be two things as a woman on the stage, the hero’s love interest or the hero’s mother. And if you are not the kind of girl who gets cast as the love interest, then you are in for a lifetime of playing mothers. Fine, I was always much more cut out to be a director anyway (much too stubborn and controlling to be an actor). But what if you’re a woman and you’re really, really good at acting? Even if you do get to be the love interest, the appeal of that is sure to have an even shorter shelf life than an actress’s eligibility for such roles. And movies are worse than plays. A brilliant actress will seize on the chance to play an awful role, merely for the chance to not be marginalised by the story.
Rosumund Pike is an actor of superlative virtuosity and subtlety. Perpetually cast as glacial, she is capable of comedy, passion and even, when called upon, ordinariness. And yet she has played a lengthy series of sidekicks, support roles and girlfriends. How she must have longed to get her teeth into the chewy centre of a movie. So of course she seized on the role of Amy in Gone Girl, even though it required her to play less a human being than a masculine paranoid fantasy. At least it took range.
I should make clear that I don’t mean here playing someone evil or unattractive. Hedda Gabler is a profoundly different prospect from Miss Julie. Strindberg’s technique of employing real human beings on stage to show the audience his own fear and distaste for women bears no resemblance to Ibsen’s use of them to reveal the destructive flaws in our social systems. When Gone Girl came out earlier this year, the cry came up from female cultural critics: “Please don’t think we don’t want female villains. We LOVE female villains. We especially love female complicated anti-heroes. And messed-up loser everywoman protagonists. Just not female ludicrous projections of the fear of female autonomy.” (Incidentally, Euripides is the only one who creates worthy projections of the fear of female autonomy. If you can’t compete with Medea, step down.)
There is a through line that can be traced from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, via Fatal Attraction (Glen Close is said to have taken the role because she was desperate to stop playing ‘good girls’), and David Mamet’s Oleanna, all the way to Gone Girl. These stories have more to link them than a warped woman at their core. They present a world that pretends to be ours but nurses a huge lie.
The really insidious side of this is the niggling feeling that playwrights are buying off brilliant actresses with substantial central roles, in order to co-opt their presence and conviction to push a vile agenda. That agenda is always that once you start allowing women any kind of sexual autonomy, or god forbid, believing what they say, civilisation will crumble.
Gone Girl and Oleanna have the most in common here, because they both pretend to represent the real world, but include scenes that could only take place in a bizarre fantasy parallel land – one in which a woman’s account of being raped is accepted uncritically. I’ve never seen it pointed out how utterly nonsensical the final scene of Oleanna is. As if a young woman can waltz into a police station, say a respected man raped her, and have them go ahead and charge him with a crime. What does Mamet think happens after a woman makes such a complaint? Does he think the police pat her hand, make her a cup of tea, and then proceed with the arrest? In our world, the one we actually live in, Carol would have been asked immediately to give a moment-by-moment account of the assault, including what form the penetration took (and very likely if she’d been drinking, what she was wearing, if she had injuries, how she failed to fight him off), and if she replied ‘words’ she would be lucky if they merely laughed in her face, and stopped short of prosecuting her. Amy’s framed assailant in Gone Girl would have gone on to a perfectly normal career and dating life, while she was asked how it could really be rape when he had been her boyfriend, and her college declined to expel him.
By setting these stories in environments designed to look as ordinary as possible, the fantastical nature of the way events unfold is disguised, and a key component of this is having the kind of actress who can sell a role. Unfortunately the bargain demands that she sell out herself, and other women too, all because of the failure of our chief storytelling industries to offer her the kind of alternative she deserves.
I’ll leave you to contemplate the brilliant Lady Parts Tumblr, and everything it does for making my point much more succinctly.